Passing

Article excerpt

IN 1916, WHEN MARGARET MORRIS WAS A little girl living in Washington, D.C., she lost her family and they lost her. First her mother died at the age of forty-one. Then her father, uncles, aunts, sister, brothers, cousins, and even grandmother vanished. This family cleaving left in its turbulent wake a frightened four-year-old who would become my mother.

She was raised by some distant cousins on her mother's side. And although she married into a vibrant, large, welcoming family, she grieved for the people she had known so briefly. Some of that sorrow she passed on to me. She also passed on all the questions that those who are abandoned or adopted have: Why me? What did I do? Wasn't I good, beautiful, sweet, or smart enough?

And so when I was twelve, I told my mother that someday I would find her family. I was determined that through me she would find out why they had left and what sorts of lives they had led. Through me she would finally embrace her only sister. I believed I could give her that most special gift--the gift of family. The mission became a fifteen-year quest, a successful journey through time, across continents, and over the gulf we know as race, for it was race that had precipitated my mother's abandonment. Her vanished family had left her and deliberately set out to try their luck living as white people in a white world.

I began with the knowledge that my mother came from a background that included Irish, Italian, Native American, and African strains. But there were virtually no traces of color or physical traits that have traditionally been thought of as Negroid. All of her family looked like white people. They had fair skin, straight hair in shades ranging from blond to red, and eyes also of every imaginable hue. Her own mother's eyes were said to have been gray.

What I subsequently learned was that her ancestors included English aristocrats, Scottish poets, and Virginia gentry. It had always been a certainty that my father's genetic lines included African and Native American roots, but I learned that he too, like most black Americans, included the descendants of white European immigrants in his family tree. The family that I knew had dramatically enlarged, and it began to look like much of America. In the end I reconciled the two sides of my mother's family, bringing them together across the deep, wide canyon we call race in America. In the end family transcended race.

There was another result. In January of 1994 Simon & Schuster published my book The Sweeter the Juice (whose title comes from the old African-American saying "The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice"). It chronicled my search for my mother's family and documented the life and times of six generations of my father's family.

Once the book was out, letters began to arrive in a stream that grew to a torrent. By now I have received thousands, and they have revealed to me in the most intimate and moving way the extent to which our family's experience is shared. "'Gram, we got this kinky hair from someplace,'" one letter began. "My wife remembers her cousin making that remark to the cousin's grandmother many years ago. At this point we still don't know where or, more properly, who that someplace was, but reading The Sweeter the Juice has aroused my interest in finding out.... We hope that you will accept us as a couple more of your cousins...."

THE ANTHROPOLOGIST ASHLEY MONTAGU was long an advocate of abolishing race as a concept. He never used the term except in quotation marks. Last year Dr. Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, a geneticist at Stanford University, confirmed that DNA is a potpourri of genes deriving from myriad ethnic sources. And Jonathan Beckwith, a microbiologist at Harvard Medical School, argues that scientists cannot measure genetic differences between the races.

Yet "race," that socially constructed entity, was the reason for the breach in my mother's family. Although the two sisters had teh same parents and skin color, one lived all her life as a black woman, and the other lived hers as a white woman, keeping her black heritage a secret from her white husband, their only child, and their grandchildren. …